A museum dedicated to George W. Bush lets visitors put themselves in George Bush’s shoes as they consider what actions they might have taken at some of the most pivotal turns in Bush’s presidency. We’ve always said that history would be kinder to Bush than the electorate was because time would reveal what he knew and we didn’t.
By PETER BAKER
Published: April 20, 2013
UNIVERSITY PARK, Tex. — More than four years after leaving office, former President George W. Bush has a question for America: So what would you have done?
The hypothetical exercise, which includes touch screens that let users watch videos of “advisers” before voting on whether they would make the same choices that Mr. Bush did, revisits the most consequential moments of his administration. In the process, the country is being asked to re-evaluate the two-term president who presided over some of the most tumultuous years in the nation’s history.
The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum will be officially dedicated on Thursday on the campus of Southern Methodist University in a ceremony that will bring together President Obama and the four living ex-presidents. Leaving aside for a day the partisan rancor that marked Mr. Bush’s tenure, they will help celebrate his eight years as president and six as governor of Texas.
The $250 million complex houses the 13th official presidential library, and the third in Texas, but it is the first of the iPad era. The exhibits are filled with modern gadgetry and 25 different films and interactive videos. Many of the artifacts of the period are on display — a butterfly ballot from Palm Beach County, Fla., a replica of Mr. Bush’s Oval Office, the bullhorn he used at ground zero and a gnarled steel beam from the World Trade Center demolished on Sept. 11, 2001.
The museum’s 14,000 square feet of exhibits present the presidency Mr. Bush intended (tax cuts, No Child Left Behind, faith-based social services) juxtaposed against the presidency he ended up having (terrorism, war and financial crisis). Large screens recall the day the towers fell in New York and the invasion of Iraq. A glass-topped Defending Freedom Table allows visitors to pull up briefing materials, videos and maps as if on a giant tablet.
No president produces a museum known for self-flagellation, and Mr. Bush’s is no exception. It does not ignore controversies like the weapons of mass destruction that were never found in Iraq, but it does not dwell on them either. In the Iraq display it says flatly, “No stockpiles of W.M.D. were found.” But then it adds, “Post-invasion inspections confirmed that Saddam Hussein had the capacity to resume production of W.M.D.”
A six-minute introductory video narrated by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice acknowledges disputes over Iraq and interrogation techniques while defending them as efforts to protect the country. “If you were in a position of authority on Sept. 11,” she says, “every day after was Sept. 12.”
The museum touches on other crises and setbacks as well, including exhibits on Hurricane Katrina and the president’s failed Social Security initiative. But it also features often-overlooked achievements, like the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which has treated millions of people with AIDS in Africa, and the creation of the world’s largest marine preserve.
“The museum itself is the Bushes’ personal statement about what they think was important,” said Mark Langdale, president of the George W. Bush Foundation, who oversaw the construction. But Brendan Miniter, who managed development of the museum, said that Mr. Bush wanted the exhibits to avoid editorializing and, for example, insisted that critical letters from troops be included. “We try to let it speak for itself,” Mr. Miniter said.
Mark K. Updegrove, director of the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, said the tone should come as no surprise. “It’s unfair for us to assume that an exhibit depicting a president’s administration will be objective when the president is alive,” said Mr. Updegrove, who is working on a book on the father-and-son Bush presidents. “But there’s still great value in getting a president’s perspective on his administration.”
An intriguing aspect of the museum is who is featured and who is not. There is a statue of Mr. Bush with his father, a section devoted to Laura Bush’s travels, a video by his daughters and even statues of the family dogs and cat. In addition to Ms. Rice, Mr. Bush’s two chiefs of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr. and Joshua B. Bolten, also narrate videos. But former Vice President Dick Cheney, former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Karl Rove, the president’s political strategist, generally make only cameo appearances in news footage.
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